13 THE MANY FACES OF FRIENDSHIP
VLAD BUTTONED THE BOTTOM BUTTON on his black vest and regarded his reflection in the mirror. While Nelly had fought him tooth and nail on wearing skinny black pants, a white dress shirt with black pinstripes, a black vest, a black jacket, and tennis shoes adorned with tiny skulls to the Snow Ball, Vlad thought even she would agree that he looked pretty good. He slipped his jacket on and brushed his black hair from his dark eyes. He was cloaked in shadows from head to toe. This was going to be a night to remember.
Downstairs, the doorbell rang out in an ominous tone. Moments later, there was a soft knock on Vlad’s door. Vlad checked his jacket pocket for ChapStick and said, “Come in.”
Henry opened the door, and Vlad’s smile deflated. He was dressed in the same outfit he’d worn to school that day.
Unwilling to entertain the notion that his best friend was ditching him again, Vlad said, “Dude, you do know that this is a semiformal dance, don’t you? Snelgrove will never let you in wearing that.”
“ That’s okay.” Henry cleared his throat against his fist, then took a deep breath, as if whatever he was about to say required an enormous bout of bravery. “I’m not going.”
Vlad stiffened-it wasn’t like Henry to miss a dance, let alone this dance, and they’d been talking about going as recently as last week, the day he stood up to Eddie, the day Henry had stormed out in a huff. The Snow Ball was a huge deal to everyone-from the goths to the jocks. It was just about the only time the two groups could mingle in the same room without any snide comments being tossed around. Vlad couldn’t imagine Henry missing out. “What about Kylie McAuliffe?”
Henry shrugged vacantly. “I called her a couple of hours ago and canceled.”
Vlad just about choked. “Why?”
Henry stood there for a long time, despondent. He seemed to be bursting with things to say, but holding them in, as if he didn’t want to taint Vlad’s mood with his own. Finally he sighed and dropped his gaze to the ground. “It’s just a stupid dance, Vlad.”
Vlad tightened his jaw, resisting the temptation to read Henry’s mind. “Is it because of Melissa?”
Henry shoved his hands in his front pockets, his eyes still on the ground. Finally, in a gravelly tone, he said, “If you really wanna know, it’s because of you.”
Vlad blinked. He wasn’t entirely certain he’d heard Henry right. He squeaked out, “Me?”
Then Henry’s hands were out of his pockets, his eyes blazing, his face red. “I’m so sick of it, Vlad!” he yelled. “You think you’re so special because you can float through midair and read people’s minds. You think you’re so great because you can order me around and I have no say at all. I’m sick of it! I’m sick of you!”
Vlad was shocked into complete silence. Every word slashed through his heart like a knife, until his insides were nothing more than a pile of goo. It hurt to hear these things-but it hurt a thousand times more to hear them from Henry.
Though it pained him to do so, Vlad took in a slow, deep breath, licked his dry lips, and forced his mouth to form words. “For one, I don’t think I’m all that special. Most of the time, my abilities just make me out to be some kind of freak. And since when do I order you around?”
“At lunch a few weeks ago. And there were other times.” Henry’s eyes were red and shining, as if he were fighting back frustrated tears. “I don’t get a choice. You made me your drudge and didn’t even ask me, didn’t even tell me what it would mean.”
Vlad’s own eyes filled with tears, and he shook his head, hoping the action would clear his vision. “How could I have told you? I didn’t know, Henry! Not until Otis told me two years ago. This is nuts. You’re acting like a crazy person.”
Henry met his gaze. His words were crisp, cold. “I’m tired of being your slave. I want out.”
Vlad felt as if every ounce of air had been sucked out of his lungs, and he nearly staggered in an effort to catch his breath. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It was like his best friend had been replaced by one of the pod people. He shook his head, confounded. “You… you really don’t want to be my drudge anymore?”
Henry didn’t reply. Vlad fought the urge to weep uncontrollably and instead pushed his anguish deep down, where he could pretend it didn’t exist. He didn’t speak for a very long time.
Then finally, once his heart had completed its explosion, throwing shards of itself up against the walls of his rib cage, he choked out, “I read something about releasing a drudge in the Compendium of Conscientia. If you’re serious-”
Henry’s glare said that he was.
“-I’ll brush up on the details.”
Henry stood there silently. Vlad was beginning to wonder if he’d ever speak again, when he blurted out, “Do it soon.”
Something inside Vlad snapped, and his anguish turned to fury. “If I didn’t have a dance to go to with my girlfriend, I’d do it right now!”
Henry stepped out of the room and slammed the door. Vlad could hear him as he stomped down the stairs and banged the front door shut. Tears were streaking Vlad’s face when another soft knock came at his door. Not meaning to, he snapped, “What now?”
Nelly cracked the door open and peered at him with a look of pity that made Vlad’s tears fall faster. She rarely came to his room, so he knew she’d overheard at least part of the argument. “Henry seemed pretty upset when he left,” she said softly. “What happened between you two?”
Vlad wiped his tears with the back of his hand. When he spoke, his voice shook with exasperation. “Have you ever thought you knew somebody better than anyone and then they just changed out of the blue into somebody else entirely?”
Nelly slipped inside and sat on his bed, nodding with understanding. “Your mother, actually.”
Vlad flashed her a curious glance and sank down onto the mattress beside her. “Really? What happened?”
Nelly sighed, as if the memory was almost too much to bear. “One day we were sharing all our secrets and spending all sorts of time together. The next day she needed time alone and couldn’t tell me what she was doing when she was away. It was a horrid period in our friendship. We argued a lot. I shed more than a few tears, convinced I’d lost my best friend forever.”
“But you made up, right?”
Nelly smiled, but her smile was tainted with a strange sadness that Vlad wasn’t sure he would ever understand. “Eventually. One day, Mellina came to visit me, and she brought with her the man of her dreams-that’s what she called your father, the man of her dreams. Once she and Tomas explained the situation-that he was not human, and that they were expecting a child-I understood her reasons for secrecy. Everything was fine after that, and our friendship was as close as ever.”
She met his eyes, her gaze aching with concern for him. “My point is, Vladimir, that there is almost always a reason for people to act as Henry is acting. Your job as his friend is to be kind, to be available when he needs for you to be, and to understand, no matter what those reasons may be. That’s what a good friend does.”
Vlad chewed his bottom lip for a moment. “What if he told me the reason, and now he wants me to do something for him that I don’t want to do? Only… the reason I don’t want to do it is because I’m scared we won’t be friends anymore after that.”
Nelly paused notably before narrowing her eyes in suspicion. “Is whatever he’s asking you to do illegal?”
“Nope. Nothing like that.”
“Just checking.” She smiled, this time more naturally. At least her bloodsucking ward wasn’t a criminal. “Well, I suppose you’ll just have to decide if Henry’s needs, and his happiness, are important enough to you that you can take that risk.”
It seemed simple enough. But applying that logic to actual actions seemed more daunting to Vlad than hang gliding in a blizzard.
Nelly patted his hand. “But the most important thing that you need to do right now, Vladimir, is put this out of your mind and have fun at the dance. Are you ready to go?”
Vlad sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I guess so.”
Nelly gave his hand a squeeze and stood up to leave his room. She stopped at the door just long enough to tell him, “By the way, you look very handsome.”
Alone once again, Vlad adjusted the signet ring on his pinkie, and tried to put his argument with Henry in the back of his mind. He took a deep breath and left his room, heading downstairs. He had a dance to get to.
Nelly had insisted on driving Vlad and Meredith to the dance-partly, Vlad thought, to lessen his and his girlfriend’s alone time. They had just backed out of the driveway on their way to Meredith’s house when Nelly started in. “If you get hungry, just give me a call. I can always stop by with a few blood bags. Better safe than sorry, you know.”
Vlad rolled his eyes. Nelly was seriously blowing things out of proportion. It wasn’t like Vlad had tried to bite Meredith intentionally or anything. Besides, it had only happened once and not recently. Just that one time, after the Halloween party, and that teensy little moment in the broom closet. So, twice. It was no big deal, really. Looking back, Vlad could almost forget the horror of that moment when he realized he’d been poised to snack on the girl of his dreams. Almost.
They came to a stop in front of Meredith’s house. Vlad opened his door and started to get out, but Nelly stopped him. “Hey, you might need this.”
She handed him a clear plastic container. Inside was a wrist corsage of white roses and black feathers. Vlad had completely forgotten about flowers. “You picked this out?”
“Good choice. Thanks, Nelly.”
Nelly smiled, and Vlad closed the door behind him, making his way up the icy sidewalk to the front porch of Meredith’s home. He rang the bell, and a large shadow appeared on the other side of the door. The door opened to reveal Meredith’s father. He had the broadest shoulders that Vlad had ever seen. He glared at Vlad and kept his voice low. “No funny business, and have her home by eleven. You hear me?”
Meredith’s sweet voice lilted from within. “Daddy, let Vlad in. It’s cold out there.”
Meredith’s mother, a thin woman with warm brown eyes and strawberry blonde hair, appeared by Mr. Brookstone’s side. “Really, Harold, let the boy in.”
She smiled at Vlad as her husband retreated back into the house. “Don’t mind him, Vlad. He’s a big teddy bear. Come on in. Oh, what a lovely corsage!”
Vlad was quite certain Mr. Brookstone was a bear of some sort-maybe a grizzly or a Kodiak-but definitely not a teddy. And his diet absolutely consisted of boys that dated his daughter. He moved inside and closed the door, and when Meredith drifted down the stairs, Vlad’s heart choked him into speechlessness.
She wore a long, white satin gown, with embroidered black snowflakes adorning the bodice. In several spots, the snowflakes seemed to cascade down her dress. Her chocolate hair was in ringlets, and pinned up so that the curls barely brushed her shoulders. She looked more beautiful than any girl Vlad had ever seen.
As she left the bottom step, Vlad found his voice. Taking a step forward, he said in hushed awe, “Meredith… you look amazing.”
Behind him, the bear growled.
Mrs. Brookstone smacked her husband gently on the arm and picked up her camera. “Come on, you two; let’s get some pictures so you can be off to the dance.”
Vlad opened the corsage box and slipped the corsage on to Meredith’s wrist. As he did so, he noticed the tiny snowflakes painted on her fingernails. Meredith gasped. “Oh Vlad, it’s perfect!”
Vlad beamed. “I picked it out just for you.”
She leaned forward, like she was going to kiss him on the cheek, and then faltered, as if remembering her boyfriend-eating father was in the room. Vlad smiled gratefully.
After posing for approximately five bajillion pictures, Vlad helped Meredith with her coat, and they moved out the door and down the sidewalk to the car. Vlad held her hand over the icy parts, not wanting her to slip and fall. He was keenly aware of the bear’s eyes on him the entire time. Once they were safely in the car, Nelly gushed over Meredith’s gown. Vlad stayed quiet for most of the drive, allowing Nelly and Meredith their girl-focused conversation while he mused about how lucky he was to be dating a girl like her. But overshadowing his thoughts was tonight’s argument with Henry… and what it would mean if he was no longer Vlad’s drudge.
Their friendship, Vlad wagered, would be a memory. Vlad would be alone, lacking that bond of blood and promises that he’d had since he was eight years old. What would it be like to be without a drudge? Would he make another? No. No, he didn’t think he was even capable of such an act. After all, if Henry weren’t his drudge, what was the sense in creating another?
Vlad bit his lip. The thing was… he wanted Henry to be happy. And if breaking that bond would give him a chance at happiness, then Vlad had no choice. What it came down to was the fact that Vlad would do anything for his best friend-even if that meant losing him forever.
Meredith squeezed his hand, and when he met her eyes, it was clear she was wondering what was wrong. But how could he explain that part of his soul was breaking off, all because of eons of vampire tradition? He couldn’t. So instead he forced a smile and squeezed her hand in return.
At the school, Nelly took pictures of them standing in the snow. She insisted the photographs would be memories they would cherish for a lifetime, but Vlad was pretty sure the memory-retaining part of his brain had been frozen solid by the time she finished snapping pictures.
At last, Vlad led Meredith up the snow-covered steps and into the school. Soft light filled the halls, and silver snowflakes glistened all over the floor, guiding them into the gym. Meredith covered her mouth in awe. Vlad’s eyes went wide. The room had been transformed into a winter palace in honor of the annual Snow Ball. The punch and snack table was disguised to look like a snowbank. Silver, white, and blue snowflakes hung from the large arched ceiling. An ice sculpture of a giant snowflake stood next to the food. And the DJ’s booth had been completely wrapped in silvery paper, giving it a frosty exterior. It was the coolest dance theme that he had ever seen.
Melissa bounded up to Meredith, and they squealed over each other’s dresses. Mike nodded to Vlad like they were old pals. “What’s up, Vlad?”
“Not much.” Vlad beamed. It was hard not to smile on such a magical night. A night, he noted with a quick glance around, that didn’t include Eddie’s stalking or Bill and Tom’s bullying.
A song that Vlad knew by heart pounded from the DJ’s speakers, and the girls dragged him and Mike onto the dance floor. Vlad froze for a moment, because he really had no idea what he was doing. But eventually, he figured out a way of shifting his feet around that almost, sorta, kinda felt like dancing. After two songs, Meredith excused herself, and Vlad took refuge by the punch bowl.
It was nice to attend a dance where Bill and Tom were nowhere to be seen, and even nicer to have a date-especially the girl of his dreams. In fact, if it weren’t for the dark cloud that had been hanging over his head ever since Henry had made his big I-don’t-want-to-be-your-drudge-anymore speech, the evening might have been a pretty good one. For once, Vlad felt like a normal, human teenager.
He was wandering past the gym doors on his way to find Mike when he overheard Meredith’s voice coming from the hallway outside. “No, I won’t stay away from Vlad. How could you even suggest such a thing, Kylie?”
Peeking around the corner, Vlad saw Kylie whisper to Meredith. Whatever she said put an irritated crease in Meredith’s forehead.
Meredith shook her head. “Well, I don’t believe it.”
“But Henry McMillan told me-”
“I don’t care, Kylie. If it didn’t come straight from Vlad’s lips, I wouldn’t believe it. What a crazy, stupid rumor to spread! There’s no such thing!” Meredith stormed off in the direction of the girls’ bathroom. Kylie stood there, looking wounded but determined.
Vlad’s stomach had twisted into a million knots.
Henry wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Could he?
Vlad quickly ran through every order he’d ever given Henry. None of them had included “Don’t tell people I’m a vampire.”
A wave of nausea washed over him. It was quite possible that Henry had broken his trust in a moment of blind fury, and had spilled his most valuable secret to the girl he was supposed to take to the dance. Vlad shook his head, unwilling to believe it, but also unable to deny the possibility that Henry might have slipped up in a moment of anger.
And all at once, Vlad was a freak again, and the dance was all but ruined.
Kylie almost bumped into him as she reentered the gym. Vlad forced a smile, not wanting to cause any more damage or to do anything that might substantiate any possible claims that he was a bloodthirsty monster. “Hey, Kylie.”
Kylie’s face went white and she stepped backward, away from him. “Henry told me about you. Stay away from me!”
Vlad forced himself to remain calm, even though he was in full-on panic mode inside. “What did he say?”
“Leave me alone!” Kylie bolted across the room and started talking to a group of kids, gesturing wildly at Vlad.
Vlad swallowed hard and glanced about the room. The only thing missing from this scene were torches and pitch-forks. From behind him came a familiar voice, warm, sweet. Meredith. “Don’t worry about Kylie. She’s just a little worked up over something stupid Henry told her.”
He turned to face her, not wanting to see fear in her eyes. Thankfully, he didn’t. “What would that be?”
Meredith furrowed her brow. “Are you okay? You look sick or something.”
Vlad shook his head, indicating that nothing was wrong. Meredith didn’t look like she believed him, but went on, “Anyway, he told her that she should stay away from you, that close contact with you would be dangerous or something. Are you sure you’re not sick, Vlad?”
Vlad felt like vomiting. So Henry really had betrayed him. Apparently, you can’t even trust your best friend. “I’m fine. Just wondering why Henry would say something like that.”
Meredith shrugged. “No clue, but he told her that you’re the reason he was too sick to bring her to the dance tonight. He said he caught something called Contagidiginosis from you. Apparently, it eats away the lining of the stomach like acid and comes from cross-eyed antelopes in Africa.”
Vlad’s jaw dropped. Henry hadn’t exposed him. Henry was just being stupid. Completely, ridiculously stupid “Antelopes?”
Meredith chuckled. “You look better already. How’s your stomach?”
Vlad smirked. “Still intact. Guess I must be on the mend.”
A slow song started playing, and Vlad swept all of his fears away, turning to face Meredith. He smiled. “Wanna dance?”
In moments, they were on the dance floor.
Meredith placed her hand on his shoulder, and Vlad shivered as he clasped her free hand in his. He still wasn’t sure exactly what to do with his feet, but when he looked into her deep chocolate brown eyes, he realized that it didn’t matter whether he could dance or not-all that mattered was that he was here with her, that they were together, that it was the Snow Ball, and he wasn’t alone. He was in the gym with his girlfriend instead of in the belfry with his thoughts.
They moved in slow circles, and snowflake-shaped confetti and silver glitter lazily drifted down from overhead, covering the dance floor and everyone on it. Meredith tilted her head back and closed her eyes, laughing softly as the glitter graced her cheeks. Vlad smiled, blinking away confetti. She was so beautiful that his heart ached.
The music drifted through the room. Vlad brushed a snowflake from Meredith’s cheek. They weren’t dancing anymore so much as standing in the center of the room, holding each other close to the tune of gentle music, covered by the decorative splendor of an unusual high school dance. Vlad met her warm gaze and was transported back to Halloween night, when he’d realized how much, how deeply he loved Meredith. Only tonight, his feelings seemed even deeper somehow, bigger, more real. He placed his forehead lightly against hers and closed his eyes.
So this was how his dad had felt about his mom. Vlad got it now. It was love, real and true. And it didn’t matter that one of them wasn’t entirely human. It didn’t matter that technically, they were predator and prey. Or that when Vlad inhaled, he could detect the subtle, sweet scent of her blood as it moved from artery to vein and had to force his thoughts away from the danger of her close proximity. None of it mattered.
The only thing that truly mattered at the moment was that Vlad loved Meredith, and that he always would.